Christina Campbell and William Miller
Juvenile risk assessment instruments have provided juvenile courts with the opportunity to make standardized decisions concerning sentences and intervention needs. Risk assessments have replaced the reliance on professional decision-making practices in which court officials relied on their hunches or previous experience to determine what to do with youth once they became involved in corrections. A primary goal of juvenile risk assessment is to improve case management and help courts focus resources on juveniles who exhibit the greatest intervention needs. Further, juvenile risk assessments play a critical role in estimating which juveniles will likely reoffend by identifying factors that increase the propensity of future offending. Although some researchers believe that the implementation of standardized juvenile risk assessments is a good strategy for reducing biased decision-making for racial/ethnic minorities, other researchers have called into question the extent to which risk assessments overestimate risk for certain juveniles, especially those in minority groups who have a history of being marginalized due to their race, culture, or ethnicity. This article provides an overview of how well juvenile risk assessment instruments predict future delinquency across race and ethnicity. The review suggests that in general, risk assessments do a good job in predicting recidivism across racial/ethnic groups for diverse populations inside and outside the United States. However, there is still some room for improvement concerning the assessment of risk and needs for ethnic minorities. In addition, while there are some studies that do not report the predictive validity of risk assessment scores across race/ethnicity, risk assessments overall seem to be a promising effort to correctly classify and/or identify juveniles who are at greatest risk for future recidivism.
Contemporary societies are culturally diverse. This diversity can be the result of different historical and social processes and might affect the uniformity and efficiency of criminal justice systems. Colonization of indigenous populations that started in the 15th century later European colonization of Africa and migration flows following the Second World War have contributed to this diversity in different ways. The growing importance acquired by culture in the criminal law domain went hand in hand with the attention received by it both in the human rights field (especially linked to minority rights) and in the field of sociological and criminological theories.
Nowadays, crimes such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and other behaviors grounded in “culture or tradition” form the object of several international human rights instruments and media reports. The way in which criminal justice systems deal with such cases, and more in general with cultural factors, varies greatly. Different instruments have been proposed to allow the consideration of cultural elements within criminal proceedings among which (in common law countries) is the formalization of an autonomous “cultural defense.” However, international human rights instruments, especially those protecting the rights of vulnerable subjects such as women and children, have repeatedly discouraged states to take into account “culture, religion, and tradition” as grounds for justification (see, e.g., the Istanbul Convention).
Criminal proceedings are not the only setting to deal with culture and crime. More recently, the development of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice both within formal and informal (community) settings have given an additional option to take culture into account in the resolution of disputes (in terms of procedures used and normativities in play). Concerns exist with regard to the substantive and procedural rights of participants to these programs. However, these alternatives could represent a way to allow a certain degree of legal pluralism and facilitate access to justice for minority groups.
The dawn of the 21st century marked a turning point in the history of the American death penalty. Politically, the death penalty seemed vulnerable. A wave of abolitionism not seen since the Progressive Era took hold in the 2000s, as six states abandoned the death penalty, and governors in five others instituted moratoria, promising to use their executive power to stay all executions while they remained in office. While the Supreme Court remained committed to the constitutionality of the death penalty, it slowly chipped away at it in a series of decisions that narrowed the range of persons whom the state could execute.
Public support for the death penalty, already in decline during the late 1990s, continued to fall in the 21st century. A number of factors depressed support for the death penalty to levels not seen since the early 1970s: a decline in violent crime and fear of crime; highly publicized DNA-based exonerations of death-row inmates; and wariness of the cost of maintaining the death penalty, particularly during the great recession of the late 2000s.
The use of the death penalty was declining as well. The expansion of life without parole as an alternative punishment in the 1990s and 2000s gave juries in some states harsh alternatives to death sentences that they did not previously have. Longer-term changes to the judicial and penal administration of the death, meanwhile, continued to make the path between conviction and execution longer and more difficult for state officials to traverse. Most offenders sentenced to death since the 1970s were not (or have not yet been) put to death, and the average wait on death row for those who have been executed has grown to over a decade and a half. Growing problems with the practice of lethal injection, meanwhile, have posed new problems for states seeking to execute capital defendants in the 2000s, producing new legal battles and bringing executions nationwide to a temporary halt in 2007–2008.
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, however, may portend a slowing or reversing Americans’ 21st-century turn away from the death penalty.
Kayla Crawley and Paul Hirschfield
The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) is a commonly used metaphor that was developed to describe the many ways in which schools have become a conduit to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The STPP metaphor encompasses various disciplinary policies and practices that label students as troublemakers, exclude students from school, and increase their likelihood of involvement in delinquency, juvenile justice, and subsequent incarceration. Many external forces promote these policies and practices, including high-stakes testing, harsh justice system practices and penal policies, and federal laws that promote the referral of certain school offenses to law enforcement. Empirical research confirms some of the pathways posited by STPP. For example, research has shown that out-of-school suspensions predict school dropout, justice system involvement and adult incarceration. However, research on some of the posited links, such as the impact of school-based arrests and referrals to court on school dropout, is lacking.
Despite gaps in the empirical literature and some theoretical shortcomings, the term has gained widespread acceptance in both academic and political circles. A conference held at Northeastern University in 2003 yielded the first published use of the phrase. Soon, it attained widespread prominence, as various media outlets as well as civil rights and education organizations (e.g., ACLU, the Advancement Project (they also use “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track”), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers) referenced the term in their initiatives. More recently, the Obama administration used the phrase in their federal school disciplinary reform efforts. Despite its widespread use, the utility of STPP as a social scientific concept and model is open for debate.
Whereas some social scientists and activists have employed STPP to highlight how even non-criminal justice institutions can contribute to over-incarceration, other scholars are critical of the concept. Some scholars feel that the pipeline metaphor is too narrow and posits an overly purposeful or mechanistic link between schools and prisons; in fact, there is a much more complicated relationship that includes multiple stakeholders that fail our nation’s youth. Rather than viewing school policies and practices in isolation, critical scholars have argued that school processes of criminalization and exclusion are inextricably linked to poverty, unemployment, and the weaknesses of the child welfare and mental health systems. In short, the metaphor does not properly capture the web of institutional forces and missed opportunities that can push youth toward harmful choices and circumstances, often resulting in incarceration. Many reforms across the nation seek to dismantle STPP, including non-exclusionary discipline alternatives such as restorative justice and limiting the role of school police officers. Rigorous research on their effectiveness is needed.
Brooke B. Chambers and Joachim J. Savelsberg
Genocide and ethnic cleansing are among the most deadly human-made catastrophes. Together with other forms of government violence, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, the death toll they caused during the 20th century alone approximates 200 million. This is an estimated ten times higher than the number of deaths resulting from all violence committed in civil society during the same period. Yet the definition of genocide, its perception as a social problem, and the designation of responsible actors as criminals are all relatively recent. Globalization, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and cultural shifts are interrelated contributors to this process of redefinition.
While genocide and ethnic cleansing often appear to be unpredictable and chaotic, they nonetheless underlie a socio-logic across time and space. As the field of study evolved, scholars debated the role of authority and ideology in enabling violence. Today, consensus has shifted away from deterministic explanations about intrinsic hatred engrained in particular groups to sociological factors. They include the role of political regimes, war, organization, and narratives of ethnic hatred, each of which can play a role in facilitating violence.
Recent developments also include the creation of new institutional mechanisms that seek to punish perpetrators and prevent the occurrence of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Among them are criminal justice responses that work potentially through deterrence, but also—more fundamentally—through the initiation of cultural change. Prosecutions, as well as supplemental mechanisms such as truth commissions, may indeed lead to a radical shift in the perception of mass violence and those responsible for it, thereby delegitimizing genocidal and ethnic cleansing campaigns.
Mark S. Fleisher
Radical culture change instigated by conflict among diverse cultural groups has had adverse social and psychological effects witnessed by the rise of youth gangs. A close look at the processes of gang formation in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City illustrates that rapid changes in core cultural systems had a chilling effect on ethnic groups’ core cultural practices, such as adolescents’ rites of passage to adulthood. In the absence of culturally prescribed, ritual activities, adolescents have not been prepared to assume their culture’s prescribed adult roles. That radical loss in a core cultural tradition has adversely affected adolescents’ behavior. Research in the early decades of the 20th century in Chicago reported that adolescent gang members experienced depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and addictions as consequents of violence clashes between Chicago’s native white population and European immigrants and black migrants. Over the decades of gang research in America and Europe, sociologists and anthropologists have come to agree on cultural elements in theories of gang formation: American and European youth gangs are derivative of cultural clashes, which engender racism and fundamental antagonistic changes in cultural systems’ economic production and social control. Effects of hostile culture change include social discord, unemployment, gang, and violence.
Social network research on adolescent gangs has shown that gangs are not closed social groups limiting gang members’ interpersonal contact to co-group members. Gang and non-group adolescents differ in attributes (sex, age, education), but structural measures of adolescent gang groups and non-groups are similar. Network research has carefully examined gang and non-gang adolescents’ personal networks. A personal network of male and female gang members includes people they know who know them. A personal network’s composition can include a few friends, close friends, and best friends, and numerous others inside a gang group as well as members of other gangs and non-gang members. Personal network relations connect gang adolescents to their families, friends, and neighborhoods, despite gang membership. Gang ethnography describing youth gang members and their families has shown that gang youth have been victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, experience periods of episodic homelessness away their natal and extended kin, as well as fictive families, and suffer adverse mental health consequences.
Thalia Anthony and Harry Blagg
Indigenous people have been subject to policies that disproportionately incarcerate them since the genesis of colonization of their lands. Incarceration is one node of a field of colonial oppression for Indigenous people. Colonial practices have sought to reduce Indigenous people to “bare life,” to use Agamben’s term, where their humanity is denied the basic rights and expression in the pursuit of sovereign extinguishment. Across the settler colonies of Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, the colonial drive to conquer land and eliminate Indigenous peoples has left deep scars on Indigenous communities and compromised bonds to kin, culture, and country. Indigenous people have been made refugees in their own countries.
Contemporary manifestations of penal incarceration for Indigenous people are a continuation of colonial strategies rather than a distinct phase. The concept of “hyperincarceration” draws attention to the problem of incarceration and its discriminatory targets. It also turns our attention to the turnstile of incarceration in Western postmodernity. However, the prison is but one form of exclusion for Indigenous people in a constellation of eliminatory and assimilatory practices, policies, and regimes imposed by colonial governance. Rather than overemphasizing the prison, there needs to be a broader conceptualization of colonial governance through “the camp,” again in the words of Agamben. The colonial institutionalization of Indigenous people, including in out-of-home care, psychiatric care, and corrective programs, is akin to a camp where Indigenous people are relegated to the margins of society. We eschew a narrow notion of hyperincarceration and instead posit a structural analysis of colonial relations underpinning the camp.
Asher Flynn and Nicola Henry
Image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) is a form of technology-facilitated sexual violence. The term describes a pattern of behaviors involving the nonconsensual creation, distribution, or threats to distribute, nude or sexual images. Also known as “revenge pornography” or “nonconsensual pornography,” IBSA affects a significant proportion of the population. According to Australian research conducted by Henry, Powell, and Flynn, and the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner, one in five Australians between the ages of 16 and 49 have had at least one experience of IBSA, including 1 in 10 who have had a nude or sexual image shared without their consent. In a 2016 US study conducted by Lenhart, Ybarra, and Price-Feeney, 4% of men and 6% of women ages 15 to 29 reported having had a nude or nearly nude image shared without their consent. These figures are likely to be an underestimate of the true prevalence of IBSA because such studies only capture victims who have become aware that images of them have been created or shared without their consent.
Perpetrators of IBSA can include intimate partners, family members, friends, acquaintances, and persons unknown to the victim, with diverse motivations, including sexual gratification, retribution, coercive control, social notoriety, monetary gain, and voyeurism. The images themselves may be self-created by the victim as a “selfie” or produced consensually in the context of a relationship. Alternatively, images may be digitally altered, taken surreptitiously in public or private settings, or created coercively, or they may have been taken of a sexual assault or rape. While IBSA is not itself new, technology has created a conducive and large-scale platform for such abuse to occur.
Street gangs are prevalent throughout the United States. Recently, law enforcement agencies estimated there are approximately 30,000 gangs and 850,000 gang members across the United States. Gang members commit assaults, street-level drug trafficking, robberies, and threats and intimidation. However, they most commonly commit low-level property crime and marijuana use. Rival gang members or law-abiding citizens are often the targets of these crimes. Other than crime, the influence of gangs can disrupt the socializing power of schools, families, and communities. These institutions help socialize young people to learn and follow the appropriate rules of a law-abiding society. The presence of gangs and gang-related activity induces fear in the local community and great concern among citizens, impacting the quality of life of neighborhoods and cities. To confront these concerns, law enforcement is often considered the first line of defense. Despite the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and gangs, police officers have special knowledge and access to gang members and at-risk youth, which puts law enforcement in a unique position to reduce juvenile gang violence through prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts.
There are several ways in which law enforcement responds to gang violence. In its efforts to prevent gang violence, law enforcement plays a crucial role in regulating gang activity and in preventing those at risk of joining gangs. Primary prevention is broad in scope as the programs and strategies focus on the entire community. Primary prevention programs, such as the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program, target a wide population and attempt to teach youths the skills to resist peer pressure to join a gang. Secondary prevention programs narrow their focus by identifying and reaching out to youths at risk for joining gangs. Secondary prevention programs, such as Los Angeles’s GRYD Secondary Prevention Program, offer psychological and substance abuse counseling, tutoring, and employment training, among other services. Law enforcement can also reduce gang violence through intervention by implementing strategies that provide alternatives to gang membership and strategies that prevent gang activity. Gang alternative programs, such as the Gang Employment Program (GEP), aim to get individuals to leave their gangs, but also provide opportunities to prevent the individual from rejoining the gang. Gang activity prevention strategies, such as the Dallas Anti-Gang Initiative’s enforcement of curfew and truancy laws, focus on specific activities, places, or behaviors associated with gang activity. These strategies typically include special laws, mediation, and situational crime prevention strategies. As a last resort, law enforcement responds to gang violence through suppression strategies. Suppression strategies are deterrence-based strategies. Although the effectiveness of these aforementioned programs varies, law enforcement is better utilized in a prevention capacity rather than an enforcement one. Moreover, law enforcement should not tackle gang violence alone, but in partnership with other community organizations and stakeholders such as Boston’s Operation Ceasefire or Chicago’s Project Safe Neighborhoods. These partnerships with community organizations and visible commitment to combating gang violence through prevention and suppression efforts can build trust and increase police legitimacy in at-risk communities.
Much has been written about mass incarceration and how it has fallen especially hard on people of color. Given their representation in the U.S. population, for example, black and Hispanic males are far more likely than their white counterparts to be sent to jail or prison. Such disproportionality may be due to the greater involvement of blacks and Hispanics in serious street crime, especially violent crime, which would result in differential incarceration. It also could be due to discretionary decisions by criminal justice officials during arrest, charging, conviction—and, key to the focus of this article, sentencing—which might produce disparity, to the disadvantage of black and Hispanic men. Various theories seek to explain racial and ethnic sentencing disparity by focusing on characteristics of individuals and criminal cases, features of court organization and decision-making, and social contexts surrounding courts.
Literally hundreds of studies in the past 40 years and beyond have focused on sentencing decisions in local courts and unwarranted racial/ethnic punishment disparity, defined as racial/ethnic differences that persist after accounting for legally prescribed and perhaps case-processing influences. Some reviews of this large and mature body of literature have shown that young, black, and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic male defendants tend to receive more severe sentences than other defendants. In addition, reviews have noted how the sentencing role of race/ethnicity is often conditional on gender and other factors, and that racial/ethnic disparity in sentencing varies in connection with characteristics of courts and their surrounding social contexts. Future research on race, ethnicity, and sentencing should address disparity in relation to earlier (e.g., charging and conviction) and later (e.g., parole, probation, or parole revocation) stages of criminal justice decisions, as well as how the social characteristics of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys affect disparity. Research studies should continue to examine how specific punishment policies (e.g., mandatory minimums, risk assessments, and sentencing guideline provisions and departures) may be the sources of racial and ethnic disparity.
Race and ethnicity represent a pivotal issue in almost any conversation regarding gang members. These two concepts have been invariably linked in both research and the larger social world. Images of this connection invade our social milieu and appear frequently in movies, television, news, and music. However, academic research also contributes to this perception. Much of the early work, as well as a significant portion of the qualitative work on gangs, perpetuates the continued examination of racial and ethnic homogeneous gangs, with a focus on African American and Hispanic groups. This work ignores increasing problems among other racial and ethnic groups, such as Asians and Native Americans, within the literature. More recently, however, the intricacies of this relationship are becoming clearer, including the growing involvement of White individuals and the fact that gangs are increasingly multiracial. Furthermore, with the development of the Eurogang project in the late 1990s, research regarding these groups in Europe, as well as in other countries across the world, has become more plentiful, further expanding our knowledge regarding gangs and the role of race and ethnicity, as well as immigration and migration.
As the relationship between race and ethnicity and gang membership takes on more meaning, numerous explanations have been developed to account for this connection. Much of the research, both past and present, centers on the association between race and ethnicity and the impacts of social disorganization, discrimination, immigration, and cumulative disadvantage. Community and environmental factors play a crucial role in explaining why gangs thrive in communities often occupied by racial and ethnic minorities. Relatedly, external threats, specifically violence from other groups, can provide the impetus for gang development in neighborhoods marked by disorder; thus, other explanations center on violence and the role that gangs play in mitigating this threat while serving as a protective factor for the youth in the community. The risk factor approach, gaining more prominence in gang literature, investigates individual risk for gang membership, as well as the cumulative effects of risk factors. These various frameworks assist in beginning to understand the underlying factors contributing to gang membership.
With regard to policy recommendations, investigating “race and ethnicity specific” risk factors as well how these risk factors might impact programming remain key. In order to fully comprehend the development of gangs, a number of gang researchers have called for the need to understand the different historical experiences of racial and ethnic groups within the United States. For example, the histories of Hispanic and African American groups impact their experiences and thus may result in different pathways to gang membership. And yet, in many respects, these groups are still treated as single entities, ignoring their distinct histories. In fact, there remains a paucity of information regarding cross-group comparisons that examine actual differences between racial and ethnic groups. Without a closer examination of the relationship between race, ethnicity, and gang membership, effective gang policies and practices will remain out of reach.
The unofficial War on Terror that began in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States expanded a wide range of formal social controls as well as more informal methods of punitive control that were disproportionately directed toward Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, and those who were perceived to be. Although terrorism had been racialized long before 9/11, this event galvanized American support for sweeping new policies and practices that specifically targeted racial and ethnic minorities, particularly those who were immigrants. New agencies and prisons were created, individual rights and civil liberties were restricted, and acts of hate and discrimination against those who were racially, ethnically, and religiously stereotyped as potential terrorists increased. Although research shows that most domestic terrorism is not perpetrated by Muslims, Arabs, or those originating from the Middle East, the racialized stereotype of terrorists had a major impact on how the War on Terror was executed and how its implementation affected members of certain minority groups in the United States.
Marisa Omori and Oshea Johnson
There have been two major approaches to studying racial and ethnic inequality in punishment: The first approach comes from the sociology of punishment and social inequality literatures, and considers how the carceral state, including criminal justice institutions, create racial inequality through policies and practices broadly, or how racialized narratives are embedded in these policies and practices. This includes how scholarship has been drawn from institutional racism and other race literatures and integrated these ideas into how punishment policies and practices are racialized, as well as how the criminal justice system is both a consequence of and a contributor to increasing racial inequality. In particular, the social inequality literature has also been concerned with the rise of mass incarceration and its consequences for racial inequality in individuals, families, and communities.
The second approach is drawn from the criminology literature on courts and sentencing, and generally focuses on the magnitude and location of racial disparities for individuals being processed in the criminal justice system, with a particular attention to sentencing outcomes. There are several complementary frameworks that have been used to frame racial inequalities in punishment outcomes; most of them focus on individual-level decisions and decision-makers, with some considerations of organizational-level factors. Most often, this literature also quantitatively tests racial disparities of court processing and court case outcomes, with a particular focus on sentencing of convicted defendants, including whether a defendant was sentenced to prison or not (the “in/out” decision), and the length of prison sentence. The two perspectives can inform each other; the sociology of punishment focuses on policies and practices that drive racial inequality, and the courts and sentencing literature focuses on the consequences of these factors in case processing outcomes.
Sentencing guidelines were created with the goal of reducing unwarranted disparities in sentencing outcomes based on race, gender, and other legally irrelevant characteristics in order to establish a uniform sentencing system. In the 21st century, approximately 21 states and the federal courts use sentencing guidelines, although the types of guidelines used vary, with some more restrictive than others. With the quest to create more uniform sentences, scholars have examined whether the guidelines have actually reduced unwarranted disparities in sentencing outcomes. One area that has received attention from sentencing scholars as an avenue for the potential reintroduction of disparity into the sentencing process is the ability to sentence offenders outside of the guideline range, a practice otherwise known as “sentencing departures.”
Departures from guideline sentences are either below or above the suggested guideline range for a particular offense, with most departures resulting in below guideline sentences. Both judges and prosecutors have the authority to issue departures. Within the federal sentencing guideline system, prosecutors have the sole discretion to offer substantial assistance and other types of government-sponsored downward departures. The amount of discretion given to federal judges to depart from the guidelines has changed dramatically over the years, and the use of departures has subsequently increased in recent years. Research has examined whether this increase in departures has resulted in an increase in unwarranted disparity once again. This research has primarily focused on two related questions: (1) Have departures increased disparities in sentencing outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender, or other factors? (2) Who is most likely to receive a departure sentence? Several studies have found there to be differences in likelihood of receiving departures; with African Americans, males, and offenders charged with specific types of crimes less likely to receive downward departures. Other research, however, has further suggested that the increased use of departures may not have increased sentencing disparities based on race or ethnicity. Additionally, a new scope of research has emerged which takes a more nuanced examination of sentencing departures; looking at variations among districts, policy disagreement departures, and other considerations. Ultimately, the current body of research on the use, consequences, and implications of sentencing departures has provided some mixed findings and many questions remain unresolved. As research on departures continues, our understanding of the complex nature of sentencing decisions under guideline based systems will continue to grow.
Finn-Aage Esbensen and L. Thomas Winfree
The socio-demographic characteristics of gang-involved youth are a focal concern of contemporary gang researchers; policy analysts; politicians; and, in many cases, the general public. A broad overview of gang member characteristics is a critical and natural precursor for any policy response to gangs, a task that has historically included widely used socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., race or ethnicity, age, urban or rural residence, gender, and sex) and various forms of illegal and illicit behavior. Similar lists of individual and collective characteristics such as these have shaped public policy responses to youth gangs in the United States, Western Europe, and indeed around the globe. Furthermore, given the attention paid to “illegal” migration trends at the end of the 21st century’s second decade, policymakers, law enforcement officials, and others often tie immigrant status to gang membership, including immigrants’ alleged involvement in violent forms of delinquency. The following image of street gang members emerges: (a) gangs include girls as well as boys; (b) the sex composition of the gang affects the level of delinquency of gang members; (c) gang members reflect the racial or ethnic composition of the community in which they exist; (d) gang members are not disproportionately members of immigrant groups; (e) youth age in and out of gangs during early- to mid-adolescence; and (f) while in the gang, youth commit significantly more crime than their non-gang peers.
Taunya Lovell Banks
Crime films defy precise definition. This category includes traditional courtroom films like Witness for the Prosecution (1957), detective films like Gone Girl (2014), prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), comedies like My Cousin Vinny (1992) or Find Me Guilty (2006), gangster films like The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990), and even musicals like Chicago (2002). Thus crime films provide an almost limitless variety of plots, characters, and settings. Adopting a very broad definition of what constitutes a “crime film”, the representation of race in crime films throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries is examined.
During much of the early and mid-20th century, crime on American Main Street silver screens was largely a white phenomenon. The absence of people considered nonwhite from early crime films is unsurprising because “whiteness is positioned as the default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything else in American society is based. Under this conception, white is often defined more through what it is not than what it is.” Racial outsiders like African and Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other persons considered nonwhite were not featured on America’s movie screens. If they appeared at all in early crime films it was as marginal stereotypical characters.
Stereotyping, when used in film, is designed “to quickly convey information about characters and to instill in audiences expectations about characters’ actions.” During the early days of American films nonwhites were encoded with negative, often criminal, stereotypes. In silent films like Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, African American men were depicted as rapists and violent brutes. Mexicans in The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and Guns and Greasers (1918) were depicted as criminals. Silent films like The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) portrayed Native Americans as lawless savages, an image reinforced throughout the 20th century by western films. In The Cheat (1915) Japanese male immigrants were depicted as wily sexual predictors. The stereotypes attributed to ethnic Chinese were slightly different and more exaggerated. Films like The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teacher (1904) and The Yellow Peril (1908) demonized Chinese immigrants as villainous predictors. In episode 13 of the film serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914) the protagonist, Pearl, “[t]rapped in a lair of Chinese devil worshipers . . . is spared rape, a fate worse than death, in favor of ritual sacrifice to an Oriental demon who demands a bride ‘blond, beautiful and not of our race’.” Although nonwhites’ conduct was criminalized in these films, the films themselves were not crime films.